We've all been there: A new gadget doesn't deliver, a service plan lets you down, or a bill has bogus charges. Appeals to the company go nowhere, and you're left feeling cheated, frustrated, and powerless. Some disgruntled consumers, however, have taken their case to small claims court and gotten, if not complete vindication, at least the satisfaction of having their complaints heard--and, of course, a little cash for their trouble.
In a recent high-profile case, Matt Spaccarelli of Simi Valley, California, took on AT&T when the carrier throttled his wireless data service, saying he'd exceeded the limit on his "unlimited" plan. An indignant Spaccarelli dug in his heels, gathered his resources, and sued the telecom giant in small claims court, coming away with $850 plus court costs.
In another successful case against AT&T, iPhone user Henry Brown won more than $1500 in a New York small claims court. He objected to an early-termination fee AT&T charged when he tried to leave his contract. Brown wanted out because his iPhone repeatedly dropped calls, and he didn't think he should have to pay a fee to leave a poorly functioning service.
For many companies, small claims court is a relatively cheap, less burdensome way to settle charges from unhappy customers. It avoids drawn-out legal battles, potential class-action suits, and bad press. For that reason, they often settle small claims disputes fairly quickly, in favor of the customer.
Still, the prospect of taking on a corporation with legions of lawyers might seem daunting, if not downright hopeless. Is it really worth it? That depends on how motivated you are. If you care as much (or more) about making the offending company do right by you as you do about financial retribution, you might have enough fire in your belly to make small claims court work for you.
You must be willing to do your homework, too. You don't need a lawyer (in fact, some states bar lawyers from small claims court) or a lot of money, but you do need the time and commitment to prepare a solid case on your own. You'll need to collect paperwork (contracts, bills, correspondence), make calls, take notes, document conversations, fill out forms...you get the idea. And there could be delays beyond your control--in Brown's case, AT&T postponed the hearing date three times, and the eventual resolution took months.
Online Assistance and Resources
Fortunately, plenty of resources on the Internet can help. Some recent plaintiffs--including Heather Peters of California, who won a small claims case against Honda when her hybrid Civic failed to get the promised fuel efficiency--have set up websites or partnered with others to assist hapless customers in navigating the small claims process.
Each state has its own rules on how much you can sue for in small claims court--most cap settlements at about $5000--so make sure your claim does not exceed your state's limit. You'll find all the details and forms you need for each state at FreeAdvice. You can also expect to pay a filing fee, typically between $20 and $100.
The bottom line? Small claims can be a great way to get satisfaction in a dispute, but the process involves a lot more than simply filling out a form and collecting a check. If you're serious about righting a wrong, be patient and persistent, and spend time building a strong case.